This morning my Flipboard reading brought me this news commentary: Do You Really Understand Why Water Boils? New Survey Says, Probably Not.  by Nadia Drake.  Ms. Drake writes about the newest Pew Research Center Science Knowledge Survey, asking some very pertinent questions that anyone teaching in an IB school should recognise.

She writes:

The key with such surveys, says the University of Michigan’s Jon Miller, who’s been studying science literacy for nearly four decades, is to ask questions about core concepts. Things like what molecules are, what DNA is, and how the universe is organized. Show people an image of a spiral galaxy, like the Milky Way, and ask if they know what it is and why it’s important.

Conversely, asking about names, dates, or places can tap into someone’s biographical rather than foundational knowledge. “It’s not really getting at whether they have a skill level,” Miller says.

In other words, surveys should not be testing whether people understand the headlines in today’s science stories, but whether they have enough basic knowledge to understand the headlines 20 years from now.

If you read some of the IBO’s resources about teaching and learning through inquiry  you’ll find paragraphs like these:

Conceptual understanding

A concept is a “big idea”—a principle or notion that is enduring, the significance of which goes beyond particular origins, subject matter or a place in time. Concepts represent the vehicle for students’ inquiry into the issues and ideas of personal, local and global significance, providing the means by which they can explore the essence of language and literature.

Concepts have an important place in the structure of knowledge that requires students and teachers to think with increasing complexity as they organize and relate facts and topics.

Concepts express understanding that students take with them into lifelong adventures of learning. They help students to develop principles, generalizations and theories. Students use conceptual understanding as they solve problems, analyse issues and evaluate decisions that can have an impact on themselves, their communities and the wider world.

The structure of conceptual understanding in the Diploma Programme

DP courses have always had a focus on developing conceptual understanding, but within DP subject guides and teacher support materials the focus on teaching through concepts is becoming increasingly explicit.

Some DP subjects explicitly construct their subject guides around concepts. This can be an effective way of framing course content, as well as inspiring more explicitly conceptual assessment tasks. Other DP guides over time will be arranged and framed around concepts. However, in all subjects teaching through concepts can be a very powerful teaching strategy.


The Pew Research results reminded me of this  video of Harvard Graduates explaining why Earth has seasons:

Read more about this at the Harvard University Gazette:

…You hear a lot of rhetoric about how to reform education, and how to compete with nations whose students outscore children in the United States on science and math tests,” Schneps [Matthew Schneps, director of the SED’s Science Media Group] says. ‘Instead of opinions, we have evidence of what goes on. It’s not just gaps in teacher training and lack of money. It’s more fundamental. Students leave classrooms with concepts that are totally different from what teachers believe they have taught. What is being taught is not what is being learned…’

If you’d like a quick mental review of the value of facts  vs. concepts, watch this video.  Think about your units of inquiry.

“50 Science Misconceptions – mental_floss on YouTube (Ep.18)”>50 Science Misconceptions


Further reading about Concepts, you might start with these web resources:

Concept Based Teaching and Learning by H. Lynn Erickson, IB Position Paper

Using Concept Tests (from Carnegie Mellon) “…Concept tests (or ConcepTests) are short, informal, targeted tests that are administered during class to help instructors gauge whether students understand key concepts. They can be used both to assess students’ prior knowledge (coming into a course or unit) or their understanding of content in the current course…”

From The Journal of Chemical Education“The use of conceptual questions is one tool that can assist students in obtaining a deeper learning experience, improve their understanding and ability to apply learning to new situations, enhance their critical thinking, and increase their enthusiasm for science and learning. In addition, conceptual questions extend assessment beyond “What does a student remember?” and “What can a student do?” to “What does a student understand?” Conceptual questions also provide one route for diagnosing student misconceptions…

Find blank Frayer’s Model at this Google Search page.